There probably isn’t a bigger social pariah than the single middle-aged woman. My mother discovered that when my father left her and people who had been her friends dropped her like a hot potato. I don’t know if it’s any easier for a widow, but I suspect once the sympathy over her loss had been properly observed she found herself similarly bereft of friends as the divorcee. Are they afraid that being single might be contagious?
Every culture has its prohibitions attached to widowhood, and the best that can be said for most of them is at least they don’t demand that the widow follow her husband to the grave anymore like they once did. Of course, given some of the prohibitions imposed on widows in the name of respectability by some societies, they might as well be dead. The code of conduct she is expected to adhere to in some cases is even more restrictive of her behaviour than when her husband was alive. In most cases it’s usually the woman’s own family who are responsible for making sure that she doesn’t act in a way that will give them reason to utter those most horrible words of condemnation, “What will the neighbours think?”
In The Story Of A Widow, being published on August 12th by Random House Canada, author Musharraf Ali Farooqi takes us to Karachi Pakistan and introduces us to the recently widowed Mona. Akbar Ahmed, her husband of thirty years, had dropped dead from a stroke a mere three days after his doctors warned him that he needed to watch his cholesterol. The one area in his life where he had not been a model – if not a zealot – of restraint was at the table, and it was there after dessert that he met his untimely demise.
It’s only after the official forty day mourning period, and the settlement of the will and the estate are finalized, that Mona becomes aware of her newfound freedom and independence. For thirty years she has lived her life according to the dictates of her husband’s needs. What with ensuring that his clothes were laid out every morning in the exact manner requested, being certain that his tea was steeped no more or less than three minutes to making the elaborate meals that he required at the end of the work day, she was left with no time for her self. However, it’s having control of the house’s finances where she truly discovers the difference between her life as a widow and as a bride.
While Akbar had always ensured there was money for essentials, not once was she ever allowed to purchase anything for herself. There was always a more pressing need to put money aside, or something else that it should be spent on. He even refused to part with money to carry out repairs on their house, insisting that the cracks in the foundation were cosmetic. It takes Mona a while, but soon she is able to buy herself a few things, without looking over her shoulder at the photo of her late husband that looms large on the living room wall.
Still, there is nothing about her behaviour to cause her family any worries about propriety as she behaves with all the dignity expected of a woman in her situation. It’s not until, Salamat Ali, a widower, moves in to the upstairs flat in her neighbour’s house that she even considers the possibility of a man in her life again. For one thing she is just beginning to appreciate her independence, and what could any man offer her in compensation for compromising that? Although Salamat has made it obvious that he is interested in her, Mona is nevertheless taken aback when her neighbour delivers a letter from him asking for her hand in marriage.
When Mona’s family gets wind of the letter of intent, reactions range from her uncle and her eldest daughter’s mother-in-law stopping just short of calling her a harlot who will bring ruin upon all their good names, her eldest daughter accusing her of disrespecting the memory of her late husband, to her sister thinking Salamat a buffoon not worthy of the family. In spite of, and maybe somewhat because of, their reaction Mona decides to accept his proposal. She does stipulate that she will retain complete financial independence, that they will live in her house, and that the photo of her late husband will always remain hanging upon the living room wall.
With Salamat, she discovers just how much of her had been lost during the thirty years of her marriage to Akbar. Not only does Salamat teach her how to enjoy life again, she also rediscovers what it feels like to be considered desirable. Even the discovery that her new husband is a drinker doesn’t damper her new joy. After all, both her daughter’s husbands and her sister’s husband drink in spite of their religion’s prohibition on alcohol, so it can’t be too great a sin. For the first time since she can remember she feels like she is fully alive, and a few drinks aren’t going to ruin that for her.
Unfortunately, it turns out that drinking is the least of Salamat’s vices. He’s addicted to gambling, and had lied to Mona about the true state of his financial affairs. He had stolen money from a previous employer to feed his gambling habit and had only avoided jail by selling his late wife’s house in order to repay the money. Yet even then she might have forgiven him if not for something that had happened early in their marriage.
He had bought her some very expensive jewelery, and when it had gone missing he had convinced Mona that her maid of many years had stolen it and must be fired if not arrested. Even at the time she had her doubts, but now she knows for sure that Salamat must have taken them in order to pay his gambling debts. When her sister and brother-in-law had presented her with the evidence of his earlier misdeeds, they had prepared divorce papers for her to sign without even consulting her first, and she had refused to do so. Now she has no hesitations about going to the lawyer’s office and doing whatever was necessary to rid herself of Salamat Ali.
“We’re only thinking of what’s best for you” are some of the most patronizing and condescending words that you can say to any adult. For thirty-plus years, Mona had somebody else telling her what was best for her and he almost stifled the life out of her. Over the course of the book Musharraf Ali Farooqi paints a picture of a woman whose life begins with the death of her husband. Even before she had married Akbar, an arranged marriage, things were being done by others for her own good, as if she was incompetent of being rational. When Salamat Ali entered her life, even her daughters would preface almost everything they said with “we only want what’s best for you”. Yet, as Ali Farooqui makes painfully clear through the other character’s actions and words, more often then not people who say that really mean, “we only want what’s best for us”.
By having Mona refuse to sign the divorce papers her brother-in-law had prepared for her – refusing to do what others think is best for her – Ali Farooqi has her finally declare her independence. What’s best for her is that she makes her own decisions and not let others dictate her life anymore. Neither the memory of her late husband, nor the expectations of her extended family on how she should behave are important, what’s important is that she continue to hold true to herself.
The Story Of A Widow may be set in Pakistan, but the scenario will be painfully familiar to anyone who has seen the way families can treat a widow of a certain age. Her life is over; she’s had her turn and should retire gracefully from the stage. She has a hell of a lot of nerve acting like someone twenty years younger. What will the neighbours think? In order for a woman to become a widow somebody does have to die, but it doesn’t mean she has to as well.